Embattled Rebel, by James M. McPherson

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm. . . .
  –Richard II

This book is a companion to the author’s previous book Tried by War, which focused on Lincoln’s role as a war president. Here, McPherson gives the same treatment to “Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief,” as the subtitle has it.

Davis resigned his post as Senator from Mississippi and came home as a new major general of the Army of the Mississippi. Before he could plan a battle, the Confederate Congress, meeting in Montgomery, unanimously elected him President. His experience as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce made him well fitted for presiding over the new nation whose chief business would be war.

The focus of this short book (just over 250 pages) is Davis’s furious effort to keep the Confederacy in the fight, despite the overwhelming odds. It’s not a happy story. Egos abound. Portraits of the leading generals pop up every dozen pages or so. You can imagine them in Davis’s nightmares.

There was a Secretary of War in the Confederacy, but Davis performed much of that function himself, partly because the first Secretary, Leroy P. Walker, was useless, but more because Davis couldn’t help himself. Davis planned an “offensive-defensive” strategy–“the best way to defend the Confederacy  was to seize opportunities to take the offensive and force the enemy to sue for peace.”

He got out of Richmond to the battles himself from time to time. He took a train to Manassas in time to encourage some stragglers to head back to the battlefield. The victory was “perhaps his happiest moment of the war.” From then on, there was a barrage of complaints and pleadings from the generals for promotions, reinforcements, and supplies. Sorting out the promotions was not the hardest part. There were few reinforcements and less and less of any supplies.

The author declares in the Introduction, “My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War.” The impression of Davis from this book is someone who gave his all in trying times. There is a short “Coda” that considers some might-have-beens on strategic decisions, ending:

Davis’s relationship with General Robert E. Lee was one of the brightest features of his tenure as commander in chief. The president recognized Lee’s ability and supported the general in the face of initial criticisms. The two men forged a partnership even closer and longer lasting than the one between Lincoln and Grant on the other side. And while the Lincoln-Grant team eventually won the war, this does not mean that the Davis-Lee team was responsible for losing it. For in the final analysis, the salient truth about the American Civil War is not that the Confederacy lost but that the Union won.


Falls of the James River, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Library of Virginia)

Falls of the James River, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Library of Virginia)

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